Connect with Your Audience
Lessons for Business Leaders from the Presidential Election

Steven Currall is the Dean of the UC Davis Graduate School of Management. In this blog, he analyzes President Obama’s successful communication strategies during the election, and provides executives and leaders with the tools to leverage trust building and active listening tactics.

During the weeks running up to the election, pundits and pollsters lined up to present their opinion on who would win – their conclusions were informed by data, electoral demographics, and popularity. Certainly, the Obama campaign was highly innovative, leveraging cutting-edge marketing techniques like data mining, and mobile messaging for donations and voter registration updates. However, my observations, and my prediction, were based on one major factor: who connected with voters better, and how?

Clearly, voters had reservations about Obama regarding his past performance, especially in terms of the economy. However, Obama had one major advantage over Romney, which was his ability to foster trust by connecting with voters and assuring them that he was listening. He relied heavily on an empathetic and reassuring communication style, consistently reassuring voters that he clearly understood their concerns and circumstances.

I conduct research on the psychology of trust, and active listening is the cornerstone component: the ability to listen and grasp the values, needs, and attitudes of others is a signal that a politician or business leader can use to build trust.

Building Trust

The most fundamental aspect of the trust decision is what I refer to as the perception of benevolence, which is all about seeing a candidate or leader as aligned and supportive of one’s own interests. Thus, the first question that comes to a constituent’s mind: is this person on my side, or not on my side? If the answer to that is yes, this person is on my side, one moves on to a second question: is the person technically competent and do they have the skills to come through in a pinch for me? And the third question is: how motivated or committed is this person to being trustworthy?

Looking back at Obama’s campaign, it’s clear that his messaging was strongly rooted in listening and being sympathetic. Back in September, I predicted that the politician who is an active listener and trust builder would swing people’s decisions once they got into the voting booth, and in retrospect, I believe that was one of the key characteristics that impacted voter behavior.

Active Listening for Executives

It worked for Obama, and it can work for you as well: honing your skills as an active listener can make the difference between an executive struggling for support and one who’s a few steps ahead of the game. It’s a great way to get your team on board as well as managing up – research shows that superiors, employees, and peers all have more confidence in your ability to lead when they feel they’re being heard.  When they feel that they are being heard, they are more likely to perceive that their interests are aligned with yours.  Or, at least they will be assured that you understand their interests.  Here are some practical tips to get others on board:

  • Be present: How does it feel to talk with someone who doesn’t seem to be listening, or be ignored or treated disrespectfully? Follow this rule: when someone comes into your office to discuss work, don’t glance at your computer screen or fidget with your phone. Look that person in the eye when they’re speaking and give them your full attention.
  • Really listen: Have you ever found yourself forming a response even before the other person has finished talking? Be flexible to others’ ideas and release your need to be ‘correct – this can cause us to be contentious, or even inflammatory. Don’t tune out because you disagree, and don’t jump to conclusions before you’ve heard the whole message.
  • Watch your body language: Demonstrate your full attention by leaning forward slightly, focusing your eyes on the speaker’s face, and keep your hands still. If you find yourself reacting to what another person says, your body language will communicate your reaction. Try saying, “You may see that I’m reacting a bit, but it’s important to me to understand your point of view. Please tell me more about…?”
  • Verbal recap: The key to making other people feel heard is to repeat their message back to them. Confirm your understanding by saying something like, “I want to make sure I understood you correctly. You’re saying…?” or “So your concern (or idea) is…?”

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